September 21, 2010
Often when I walk out of movie theaters with a group of friends, conversation is centered around impressions of the film. Such talk—”Did you like it?” “What did you think?”—follows logically from what we just experienced. I’m useless, though, usually, glassy-eyed and distant. If asked my opinion I’ll usually shrug off an “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure yet.” Too much sensory stimulation, especially when it carries meaning or metaphor, takes lengthy process time in my reality.
Such it was with our month in Europe this year.
It’s not until the past few weeks that I’ve stopped having to wake myself out of a daze of imagery, that I’ve started putting together expository thoughts like: “I think Djúpavík might be one of the most profound places I’ve ever visited.”
Perhaps it is that Djúpavík is archetypal of what it is that struck me about Iceland. Kind of weird. Definitely remote. Rather low on vegetation. Awash in falling water. Volcanic. Madly appealing to me. The word that keeps coming up to my mouth is “cool,” which is useless, but I think the place (Iceland, but also Djúpavík) has wooed me because I lack the vocabulary to share it with anyone. It is secret from my friends and family simply because I can’t explain it. This also makes me feel a bit panicky, kind of like when I see spectacular mist on a river but don’t have a camera with me, or if I’m last in line for a buffet meal. By the time I’ve found my own sentences to tell you about Iceland, the mist will have burned off and all the food will be gone before I get a chance to serve myself. Damn, that was convoluted. See? Sorry.
There was in fact a point somewhere in our fifth or sixth day in Iceland that I kind of stopped taking photographs. This might seem at first consideration to be insane, given that I was in the most photogenic place on earth in terms of my aesthetic. Actually, at second and third consideration, and given hindsight, it still seems insane. But the rub was this: It was too damned easy. I could have handed my camera to a badger (okay, arctic fox, to be Icelandic-accurate) and it would have trundled back with photos as good as any I could take. All one can do in Iceland as a photographer is be greedy; you’re just sucking in that landscape and making it visually permanent. Depending on the person holding the camera, this can either feel like manna from DSLR heaven (most people, I’d presume) or slightly nerve-fraying (me).
Djúpavík, again, the epitome of this. Considering that two people live there (according to Sigur Rós) and that the nearest “town” is multiple hours by gravel road distant, the ghost-fishing-village has a disproportionate representation on photo sites like Flickr. It is, excuse me, a dilettante photographer’s wet dream.
To get to Djúpavík, we have to jump into the middle of the Icelandic leg of our multiweek junket. We lunched in the sleepy townlet Hólmavík, which has a few neat attributes. One, I can pronounce it relatively comfortably. It also has a museum entirely devoted to witchcraft and sorcery. This was the opening of the high season, the beginning of June. The only food served in the little town were little waffles and coffee at the back of the museum, under a tent, next to a pair of whale rib-bones that curved up taller than my head. At the next table, a grumpy young English couple were ungrateful.
“Is this all you have to eat?”
“Well, don’t you at least have tea? We don’t drink coffee.”
In the Westfjords region of Iceland, it’s best to take and eat and thoroughly enjoy what you come across, because it is the size of New Jersey and there are barely 7000 people in it. And I think 6950 of those (this is an exaggeration) live in the town of Ísafjörður, which is not easy to pronounce nor type (though through sheer cussed determination I think I can make a fair run at saying it). Usually you are eating fish. In fact, waffles, with locally-made rhubarb jam, seemed like a treat.
From there we crossed a thumb of land with few landmarks besides a large boulder which apparently had something to do with the seal-headed woman … This was relayed as fact. Another thing I love about Iceland: the roadside signs, which cheerfully put magic cheek-by-jowl with straight-laced biographies of 11th century homestead farmers.
Then we drove the Arctic Ocean, something most people have not done. This gives me a tinge of thrill just in its small weirdness. We wound up the coast, fjord after fjord, and sometimes two fjords at once, tongues of land giving way to more tongues of land, spines of volcanic rock spurring out on each tongue, looking comfortingly similar (to us) to the basaltic landscape along the Snake in eastern Oregon or even the John Day country. Except much wetter and much further north.
Djúpavík is what you get to if you keep driving for some time. You might have to scatter some sheep or get out of the way for a barreling local in a Toyota Hilux, but the going is not too hard. Even in the first week of June, drifts of languishing snow. On our way north, the weather hung low and coastal, dipping occasionally down to near-freezing.
It is not possible to photograph the village and capture the waterfall quite right. It is right there and it defines the scene. As you walk between buildings, you hear its sound and echo change. The abandoned ship in its little dock area is a fascinating study of rust and shadow that could have kept me camera-busy for days just by itself. The little site is abandoned, decrepit, wild and forlorn.
We kept driving north afterward until the road petered out. By luck it petered out right at a lovely “hot pot”, right on the the beach. No humans in sight, probably no humans for days. Driving south, the clouds went very suddenly away and it was impossibly, purely sunny. It stayed that way for the rest of our trip. I love Iceland.
The clouds went away in the afternoon and it became impossibly sunny. And stayed that way for the rest of our trip. I love Iceland.
Icelandic band Sigur Rós also realized how weird and compelling Djúpavík is. They somehow managed to have a concert inside the old creepy factory. And filmed it. Like such: